Friday, January 25, 2008

Adventures in Food, Part Three

Here's the post I originally planned in this not-really-planned series on food. One of my Christmas books was Missy Chase Lapine's The Sneaky Chef, and in the last couple of weeks, I have finally executed several of the recipes from it.

If you have not yet joined in the fray that has developed around this book and its rival publication, Deceptively Delicious, here's a summary. I have not read Mrs. Seinfeld's book, so it's hard for me to weigh in on the merits of one over the other, but having looked at the pending lawsuit on the Smoking Gun, it does appear that there is more than a coincidental similarity between the two books. Seems to me something more developed in the marketing department than some evil plot cooked up in the Seinfeld kitchen. I don't think Jerry was very kind on the publicity circuit, but maybe Ms. Lapine is overreacting a bit in the lawsuit as well. (Not that I'd be above taking offense if a major star compared me to infamous stalkers and assassins). Anyway, when I heard of the two books, I decided to get The Sneaky Chef based on the fact that it was published first, as well as the fact that I've been a long time subscriber to and fan of Eating Well, the magazine for which Lapine was at one time a publisher.

Beyond all of the controversy, I was really just hoping the book would give me a few ideas of how to get O. to eat some vegetables. I was skeptical that it would drastically change my cooking, and really, the book's premise goes a little against my normal improvisational cooking style. It basically involves making a bunch of vegetable purees ahead of time and then inserting them into kid friendly recipes. Each puree has a color, so my freezer is currently stocked with little 1/4 cup baggies labeled "orange," "purple," "green," and "white." There's also a lot about whole grains, so wheat germ and whole wheat flour figure prominently in many recipes. I have my concerns about continuing to allow O. to eat only the foods he already likes, and not ever learning to eat healthier things on their own. But, as I already regularly allow him to eat a diet heavy on peanut butter or cheese sandwiches and chicken or hot dogs, I'm not exactly living up to the ideal as it is, so why not get some healthy things in there too? Let's face it, everyone in this house could probably benefit from a higher concentration of vegetables and whole grains.

I was impressed that the book actually not only deals with my concerns, but has a very detailed and well thought out discussion of them relying on seemingly solid nutritional information. I'd say half of the book is actually an explanation of how she came to start "sneaking" healthier ingredients into her daughters' food, and a guide to all the methods she used, so that you could, if you wished, develop your own recipes.

Also, if you don't feel like actually making your purees, she advocates using baby food in place of them, something I may do more often when this becomes something we have plenty of in the house in another couple months. I don't know if she has a deal with Beech Nut or not, but she did make me feel good about feeding it to O. when he was a baby, claiming that while their brand is not technically organic, they are devoted to using very high quality ingredients. I'd always felt bad about not spending the extra money on organic baby food, but I was pretty devoted to BeechNut over Gerber.

I'm not overwhelmed with the success of the recipes so far, but part of that is the fact that O's pickiness is more about food in general than about any specifically "healthy" foods. So, I've been a little bitter when I've wasted puree that took a lot of organization and time to produce on a cheese sandwich that got completely ignored at lunchtime. I also don't typically produce a completely separate meal for O. at dinnertime, just feed him what we're having unless it's spicy (because he will just spit out anything spicy and then spend ten minutes scraping at his tongue with his fingers). Therefore, I'm running low on meal options from the book for J. and I, since we don't typically eat things like franks and beans or macaroni and cheese. I should say that J. is actually more suspect about the book than O. at this point, asking "so what did you put in this?" at each meal, but he's said that the things he's tried have tasted fine.

The recipes I've tried include the following (I'm not sure of her actual titles, they're something like these):

  • "Sneaky" Fix for Store Bought Brownie Mix: This involved purple puree (blueberries and spinach), and substituting some of the try mix with wheat germ. I could not taste the wheat germ, but I do think I got a distinct berry flavor out of them, not unpleasant. They tasted like brownies do when I've made them in the "low fat" recipe -- good, not great brownies, more cakey than fudgey -- I'll probably make this one again, especially because J. doesn't like brownies, so I end up eating the whole pan, and at least I'm getting something good for myself -- the sneaky is working for ME here.

  • Baked Ziti -- this is probably the best recipe I've used yet. It involved orange puree (carrots and sweet potato), wheat germ, and substituting tofu for some of the mozzarella. I actually cut back on the cheese even further than what she recommended, because I wouldn't have put as much as she did even without the tofu, due to my own lactose intolerance. This tasted really good, and I didn't feel sick after eating it, a first for a baked pasta dish and me -- I'm looking forward to trying out her lasagna recipe on the same premise.
  • Chocolate Chip Pancakes -- These were pretty disappointing. They tasted "healthy" and kind of flat. I'm hoping it's because my baking powder was past its expiration date, and will try them again to see if that's it. I was really hoping to be able to make these ahead of time to replace the Nutri-Grain Eggos I love, because I know they are not truly high in fiber, despite their "made with whole grains" package claims. O. ate them readily, but I think you could put syrup on cardboard and he'd chew it right up.
  • No Harm Chicken Parm -- This was pretty good, though the green puree did not really get hidden, so an anti-green veg. toddler would probably avoid this. Mine did, but he didn't eat the noodles on the side either, so I think it wasn't the recipe, just he wasn't eating anything. I think the technique I already had for making Chicken Parm. from a Cooking Light recipe was actually easier than this one that called for pan frying then baking on a cookie sheet, so I may adapt this one in the future.
  • I've also slipped orange and white (peeled zucchini and cauliflower) purees into grilled cheese, boxed macaroni and cheese, and quesadillas. O. doesn't seem to notice their presence, so I'll keep doing this, though I don't know how soon again I'll have the ingredients on hand to reproduce the purees once my freezer gets depleted.

Up next to try: Chocolate Chip Cookies, Lasagna, and Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup.
I'll let you know if any are a fantastic success.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ah yes, grasshopper...

I just came downstairs from an attempt to get O. to take a nap, and while I've lately been avoiding turning the monitor on for the first half hour of nap time, for some reason I turned it on today. He is currently singing the following song: "Mommy and Daddy are the boss. I am just the little boy. Seven, Blastoff! Mama, Mama, Mama, Mom. I am awake. Old MacDonald has a big farm."

Earlier today, we got his haircut. I didn't have to hold him on my lap this time, but I did have to hold a stiff arm to his chest to keep him on the booster the whole time, and he got really quiet and sad, like something terrible was being done to him. This from the boy who drapes towels and blankets around me and his sister anytime they are lying around, and spends at least ten minutes at a time pretending to cut our hair with his fingers. He even usually tells me I can have a balloon at the end of these sessions because I was good.

Also included in our morning errands was a stop to pick up a registration form for a preschool. When I got home, I realized this form was available for download online, so I'm really glad I dragged both children in through the security checkpoints and fish tank distractions to get it.

We got air in our tires, and either I am dumb and couldn't figure out the machine, or the air pump was just about the poorest design I've ever seen, because the hose did not reach around my car to the far tires, so I had to get back in the car and move it to get the second two filled. Not to mention that I had to pay 75 cents for AIR. At least the flat tire light is finally out on my dashboard.

We went to the library, got some new books, gave my regular donation of overdue fines, played with the dinosaurs and pretend cookies for a while, and then loaded back into the car. O. refused to sit flat in his car seat at first, because "something is hurting my body." I stood him up, looked for foreign objects in the seat and found none. He was feeling his pants, so I checked out his Pull-Up, couldn't find any major wrinkles, told him nothing seemed to be wrong, and was he okay now? "Mom, I think there is a grasshopper in there."

The song upstairs has ended, and N. and I are now listening to an audiobook, toddler style. One of the books we picked at the library today is called Henry, The Dog With No Tail. "Does that look like Scout? And then..."

And that's how a Wednesday goes.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Strike Notes

It's not a great thing when it's not even four o'clock on a Saturday and I've already finished my copy of Entertainment Weekly. I look forward to its arrival all week -- usually it's the only good thing in the mail on Saturday, and I guess I was a little overzealous in my devouring of it today. The only thing worse would have been if had been an off week for the special double issue. What am I going to read while I brush my teeth and dry my hair this week? Don't judge -- I don't get a lot of down time around here.

Anyway, there was a good piece in there this week about ways to survive the writer's strike, and while I did resolve to read more, I'm finding it's not as easy as I'd hoped. My books always seem to be where I'm not, and the remote is always closer at hand. My DVR has nothing left for me except some leftover episodes of Bionic Woman and a few movies I optimistically snagged from those Encore channels -- oh and a fat list of Noggin "shows" -- and I can't quite go that low yet. Therefore, I am left to flip through channel after channel of NOTHING on the big channels, and head for the cable wasteland instead.

I noted that Paige Davis will be making a comeback to Trading Spaces, and this led me to contemplate the innumerable hours I have spent in my life watching home improvement shows. How in the world did I ever sit through even an episode of While You Were Out? I seem to have developed an aversion to it in the last year or so, a stark contrast to the many 5:00 hours I used to spend wondering how in the world anyone ever fell for the fake filming ruse, yet still compelled by the designing and quizzing. Have I finally reached my HGTV max? Is it the glut of shows centered on "carpenters" and "designers" made out to be celebrities due their own showcase dedicated to concepts like "color"? Don't get me wrong, I'm still quite drawn to House Hunters and I even stayed upstairs an extra five minutes this morning after getting dressed to watch the Style Network's latest with one of those guys from Queer Eye, but I seem to have reached a fatigue point on the design front. This does not bode well for my viewing future -- what if I lose interest in my old friend the Food Network? I guess I can always fall back on The Real World, though if truth be told I haven't really been able to enjoy a marathon since the Las Vegas season (The Gauntlet excluded, of course, due to the presence of old friends like Beth and the Miz). But that's so obviously a guilty pleasure, reserved for a weekend afternoon when J. is watching some sporting event I don't care about, not a serious alternative to fill the space left in the the week by 24's or House's absence.

So, any suggestions on how I might fill the vacuum? It can't be too elaborate, as I've got the whole of My So Called Life waiting for me on DVD, and I haven't quite gotten there yet, due to the two remote procedure necessary for using the DVD player. I'm getting a little desperate, as I've even run out of Little People Big World and Jon and Kate Plus 8's that I haven't seen at least twice.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Adventures in Food, Part Two

Actually, this wasn't my originally planned adventure to report on, but as we used to say in back when I was employed, go with the "teachable moment." So, here's a report on the other end of the dining spectrum: dinner out with the whole of the Small World.

Tonight, we were scrambling around trying to get out of the house to get some dinner after a day of getting various odd things done around the house. J. took down the outside Christmas lights after O. directed him this morning "Daddy, we forgot to take the deer down, and it is a Christmas decoration." I worked on invitations for my cousin's upcoming baby shower, and as usual, the computer sucked time right out of nowhere, so it was 5:30 before I even thought of defrosting some chicken or something.

O. originally wanted to go eat pizza somewhere, which was kind of surprising, as he usually only expresses a preference for the "quesadilla and rice place." We were all set for a new restaurant adventure -- maybe LaRosa's? That would be a real adventure, since usually that is a banned substance in our home. Contrary to most Cincinnatians, my husband is NOT a fan of LaRosa's, claiming their sauce smells like vomit. I'm sorry to even have written that, for I may have forever spoiled the experience for others. I have to admit, he has nailed the distinctive odor that haunted Kings Island and the zoo food stands while I was growing up, and I have not been able to really enjoy a slice of LaRosa's pie at a group gathering ever since he identified it for me.

Anyway, O. quickly changed his mind, and decided quesadillas really were what he wanted, that and chips. We headed down the stairs to get shoes, etc. on, and he shouted "Here we come, food!" Then, to Scout: "Sorry, you can't come. You don't have hands."

We enjoyed a meal with service slower than usual at our favorite Mexican haunt, El Picante, with an obviously new server. It is really embarassing how familiar EVERYONE in our family is with the procedures of family friendly restaurants. O. doles out the little bowls for salsa and helps himself right to the basket of chips and his personal bowl of salsa. "If you put just a little, it is not too spicy." No crayons necessary here, though we get a little antsy if the food doesn't come before the chips run out. J. gets the chicken fajitas and asks the inevitable imponderable -- why do you only get three tortillas at dinner, and four at lunch? Someone else in the restaurant always orders fajitas after his arrive, and luckily, at this place, they actually taste good, rather than just smell delicious as they pass by your table -- nothing worse than a bland fajita for taste bud anticipatory disappointment. On a recent visit, a teenaged girl approached our table and asked what J. was eating, because her mom wanted to order whatever it was. Really? Has she missed all of Don Pablo's marketing of the last decade? I order my new favorite -- chilaquiles -- I've been looking for something new for months now, after feeling like I was in a taquito rut, and am quite pleased with the discovery of #56 on this menu -- saucy, melty, and as flavorful as spicy -- J. says it is like Mexican/Indian food, perfect for me.

Tonight, our newbie let us down a little, as there was little follow up on our meal. J. only got one Pacifico, and was a little parched by the end. I'm prone to think we exude invisibility as diners for some reason -- seems we're always the ones straining to make eye contact with a server. We really do go to this restaurant a lot, so you'd think by now we'd get a little more love than we do, but mostly the employees are smiley and I feel like they mean well, so it's hard to complain.
We got out before N. got too vocal, stopped for a few chiclets out of the machine, and spent the ride home doling out the different colors of square gum to O. All in all, not necessarily an adventure, but a good experience for the Small world anyway. Next week, maybe we'll branch out to the sports bar.

Adventures in Food, Part One

The last week or so has brought a couple of new adventures in food and cooking our way. The first, and probably more exciting, was the first real dinner date for J. and I since N's birth. We took advantage of his company's offer of a free holiday dinner a little late, and went out to Boca, my favorite Cincinnati restaurant. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I fantasize about their diver caught sea scallop appetizer in between our infrequent visits. Who'd have thought that something laid on top of brussels sprouts could be as memorable and truly sensual as this dish is? I didn't even offer to share this time, so excited was I to taste those brussels sprouts, but the last time when I was less selfish and allowed J. a taste, he snorted and said "well, that's just pure butter. No wonder you like it." Now you see why he didn't get any this time. There has to be a methodical plan when attacking this dish, to allow for the right mix of creamy scallop, (yes buttery) brussels sprout and baby green. I ended up with a little too much scallop at the end -- mine was a particularly fat one, lucky me -- but it was a fine, fine food experience anyway.

I won't detail all the minutiae of my meal, not so much because I'm afraid of boring you, as much for fear that you'd come away from this post needing something more than your refrigerator has to offer you. However, my concerns that I was going a little too heavy on the "rustic" or "comfort food" with my choices of a bean and truffle stew and chicken pot pie were allayed, and and dessert, while not spectacular, was highly satisfying. There were even humorous moments in the meal, such as when our waiter snatched away our bottle of wine before we were quite sure we were done with it and I think both J. and I were this close to following him behind the bar to snatch it back. We've finally convinced ourselves that there was probably only sediment left, but still.

Our next table neighbors were also quite a pair, obviously there to impress someone, and unlucky for them, they were seated next to us. She was concerned about showing how often she'd been there before by talking up this grilled bread that she enjoyed and ordering some "on the side." He made a big deal about making a "very carnivore" order, asking for his prosciutto appetizer "without all that other stuff." "Just bring me some prosciutto on a plate," he said. I'm sure the chef is really glad he came up with "all that other stuff" for you when composing the menu. He also ordered the steak plain -- maybe with whatever potatoes they could do for him. His wife piped up that he likes that gnocchi stuff, maybe they could include that?
Halfway through their dinner, the waiter brought out a plate for this guy that had (I am not kidding) four cut up pieces of a Slim Jim artfully arranged on it. The waiter barely kept a straight face putting it in front of him, saying "a gift from the chef for you." I am still picturing the chef sending a bus boy across the street to UDF when he got this order.

Suffice it to say, the best thing about our dinner was that it did not include crayons, cups with lids, or any form of shaped chicken or a pool of ketchup.

I'll fill you in on my further food adventures tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I just scratched out '07 on a check for the first time, how about you?

Sorry for the Christmas vacation absence, but over the last two weeks, there were many no nap days, lots of good "Daddy is home!" time, as well as adjustments to life with and then without grandparents and cousins. Santa was very good to all of us, and we celebrated many days of good cheer. I am happy to report that I left the one hour circumference zone around Cincinnati for the first time since JULY in order to go to Cleveland, and it was good. N. is a good traveler (ie: she slept almost the whole way), and Little Bear went on the road with us via DVD, so O. was happy too.
Some of the highlights of our holidays included the following:
  • A visit to the Festival of Lights, wherein we did NOT avoid crowds as is J.'s preference, but waited in line for the train anyway. N. was sleeping (AGAIN), but woke up in time for us to line jump over to where J. and O. were waiting and go on her first train ride ever. Everyone agreed the reindeer were the highlight of the visit -- everything else was a little disappointing. O. was awake past his bedtime, so he thought ALL the "a-mi-mals" should be too. He was most sad the polar bear was sleeping, but still pronounced "going to the zoo was fun, Mommy" on the way home.
  • Leaving food outside for the reindeer on Christmas Eve (crushed saltines and glitter in case you're interested for next year). Come morning, we were much more involved in checking to see if Rudolph got his snack than what was in the pile of presents, at least at first.
  • Later, some of O's commentary while opening presents: (opening a plush talking Little Bear):"This is just what I wanted!" (Opening a sweater): "This is just what I wanted!"; (Opening a Diego rescue vehicle and making a pumping motion with his arm) "YES!"; (about the day in general, multiple times): "This is the best Christmas ever."
  • In the car on the way to Cleveland, a running commentary for at least an hour on which cousins will be awaiting us (all seven) and where they live normally (St. Louis, Cleveland). Shortly before O. finally crashed for a nap, he said, "I want to show my cousins my big giant huge rocket airplane."
  • All four of us sleeping in full sized bed three nights in a row, after attempts to get both children to sleep in their designated places failed. O. got a kick to the face while N. was eating at 5AM one night and sat straight up screaming "I AM awake! I DO want to go in my own bed with my amimals! I DO want to play with my cousins! I want to go home!" (later that morning, though, he reported that "I love staying at Grandma Choo-Choo's")
  • While in Cleveland, since all nine grandchildren were in one place for the first time since N.'s birth, we took the opportunity to get a portrait taken for Grandma Choo-Choo. O. nearly spoiled it by refusing, but after bribery with candy and a ride in the Donald Duck airplane in the lobby as well as a threat of a "flick" from J., he stayed in place. There is a giant tear welled up in his eye in the final photo, but his is not the worst expression of the bunch. N. was the star of the production, gumming a big grin every time the camera snapped.
  • N., actually, was the star of the week overall. I don't know if she got extra attention since Daddy was around to help, or if she's suddenly come into her own personality, but since I've posted last, N. has: taken at least three bottles, laughed out loud, rolled over from both her tummy AND her back, started "talking" quite loudly with exclamatory coos and gurgles, learned how to grab toys with her fists and shove them in her mouth, and sat on the laps of at least ten different people, smiling and batting her eyelashes the whole time.
In the spirit of the "back to school" after-vacation feeling I am having today as I attack the laundry pile again, make various doctor/dentist appointments, and fill in my 2008 calendar, I'd like to share some of my "what I got for Christmas" favorites.
We had some friends over on New Year's Eve and let all of our small children run wild in our basement. I used the opportunity to try out my new brownie pan -- the "All Edge" pan that looks sort of like a mouse maze, but promises to produce crusty goodness on every piece. I was excited but a little nervous that it would not deliver in some disappointing way, but lo, the brownies came out a delicious mix of crunchy/gooey, and came right out of the pan. I just remembered that I shoved it into my bottom oven rather than washing it right away, so I'll have to report back on its washability. I think it's hand wash only, but Williams Sonoma said the same thing for my muffin pan, and it goes in the dishwasher every time just fine.

I also got a new 12 1/2 inch non-stick skillet. My husband laughed at the fact that this seemed to be my favorite gift under the tree. I don't think he has any idea how hard it is to find one this big, or how many times I had put my old one out for the trash, only to haul it back in when I needed to make just about any meal requiring sauteeing. The sauteed apples I made last night to go with my New Year's crock pot pork and sauerkraut were so easy and uncrowded, and got just the right amount of carmelized. I didn't have to worry a bit about the flaking Teflon or whatever it was on my old one slowing poisoning my family. (the radon test kit lying on the floor in my laundry room unused will do for that worry) I've only cooked three meals since Christmas, and so far, I've used this pan every time.

I'll be reporting in on the books I received as I get to them, and what with the writer's strike, it will probably be sooner than normal. But I've already buzzed through the Daring Book for Girls, which will take its place next to the Dangerous Book for Boys on my bookshelf, now that I'm a mother to both. The tone of this newest one is a little too self-conscious, but I'm looking forward to having it to remind me of all the things I want to share with N. about girlhood. I was surprised to see that there was no mention of making those potholders out of loops, especially since they covered crafting a God's Eye.

There were many other awesome gifts, I'll let you know how they work out as I break them in, but you probably don't need the play by play on my peppermint foot lotion or the file that came with it.

But, since I've mentioned the reading, let it be noted that my number one resolution this year is to read more, and watch TV less. I realize that given the sad state of my DVR right now, I'm not exactly asking a lot of myself, but it's a way to keep myself from say, watching five plus hours of Project Runway and Say Yes to the Dress marathons as I did this weekend. I'm doing pretty well already, having finally finished Eat Pray Love, and making it halfway through re-reading another book you'll be hearing about later. I'm also still working on Mark Doty's Dog Years, and really liking it, even though it is taking ME a dog year to read it.

Secondly, I'm resolved to getting more sleep, and while this might not sound like a resolution, it is, since it involves getting N. on more of a schedule, putting her in an actual bed before 11:00PM, and forcing myself to actually get OUT of bed to feed her at night so we don't both fall asleep while I'm sitting straight up.

I won't even discuss the resolution that involves the treadmill that hasn't been unfolded since BEFORE the contractor promised to finish our basement in under six months, but you know it's there unspoken.

Finally, I'm hoping the next time someone comes into my house there WON'T be a laundry basket full of clothes in the middle of my living room, but I'm not making any promises there.

Thank you for reading my thoughts in '07. I think 2008 is going to be quite simply, great. I look forward to sharing it with you, dear readers, and hearing how it's going for you. Please, share your comments here, or email them to me. And if you think there is anyone who'd like to read about what's up in the Small World, direct them this way and ask them to do the same.